|Interaction||Components & Design|
This review is based on a review copy of the German edition Odyssey – Zorn des Poseidon kindly provided by Heidelberger Spieleverlag.The Greek gods do not, as a rule, have a reputation for being calm and reasonable. But even among them Poseidon, god of the seas, stands out as especially vengeful. So having him angry at you when your way home goes across a large body of water is less than ideal. A man called Ulysses is famous for learning that. And that puts us straight in the middle of Odyssey – Wrath of Poseidon, an asymmetric deduction game by Leo Colovini. One to four players take the role of Greek captains after the Trojan War. They are on their way to the Sacred Island where they must appease the gods so they can get home. The last player is Poseidon, who was pretty pissed with the Greeks after Troy and wants to prevent them from reaching the Island.
How to be or beat a god – The Rules
Considering the epic setting, playing Odyssey is surprisingly straightforward. You have two identical game boards – picked from four pairs available – showing the ocean with a large number of islands. Between the two boards you have a screen. Think of the typical setup to play Battleships. In Odyssey, you have Poseidon on one side of the screen, looking at his own board, while all the Greeks are on the other side. All boards have the Greeks’ starting islands in the corners and the Sacred Island in the center. When the game starts, both boards look exactly the same, with all the boats on their respective starting islands. It won’t stay this way for long.
A game of Odyssey lasts eleven rounds, and every single one of them starts with Poseidon’s move. His turns are short, all he does is select one of his storm tiles and apply the effects. Eight of those tiles show the color of one player ship. When Poseidon plays one of those, he moves that ship one space in a direction of his choice on his board, straight or diagonally. This is where the two boards stop showing the same situation. Poseidon tells the players which ship he moved, but not where. The game would be pretty boring if he did. Poseidon also has three black storm tiles in his arsenal. When he plays one of those, he moves all the player ships by one space, and he may choose a different direction for each.
Whichever tile Poseidon plays, his board is now the only one where all the ships are in the right position. The players have guesses where their ships might be at best. In order to reach the Sacred Island, they will have to re-establish where they are. That’s what they do on their turn. The players have on shared turn instead of one turn per player. In that turn, they decide in what order to move their ships and where to move them. No matter the number of players, by the way, you always use all the ships. In theory, control of them should be split evenly between the players, but in practice they end up making the decisions for all the ships together, anyway.
For each ship, the players decide in which direction to move one space. They have to move, stopping is not an option. They tell Poseidon the direction then go, and then Poseidon tells them what they can see from their new position. For the space the ship landed on, Poseidon will tell them if the water there is deep or shallow, if there is rocky or a woody island there and, if there is another ship, what color it is. For the surrounding spaces the players get less information. Poseidon will tell them how many islands they can see around them, but not what kind or in which direction. The same goes for other ships, Poseidon will announce how many there are, but neither their position nor their color. From that little information and the knowledge that Poseidon can only move a ship by one space, the players must piece together where they are. If they can’t be sure, they have tiles to mark where they think they might be. But if Poseidon moves the same ship again on the next turn, uncertainty grows quickly.
That is all there is already. If the players can keep track of their ships and reach the Sacred Island with at least three of them before the end of the eleventh round, they win. If they don’t make it in time, then Poseidon wins. There are a few extras in the box to make the game easier for one side or the other, useful if all the games end the same way.
For the Navigators, there are Lighthouses and Sea Monsters. How the Lighthouse helps the Navigators is pretty clear: they put it on the board and it gives them a unique point of reference. When they see a Lighthouse, they know for sure where they are. Sea Monsters are less obviously on their side. With this variant, Poseidon adds one or two Sea Monsters to his storm tiles. When he plays one of them, he picks one ship that cannot move this turn on account of fighting a Sea Monster. The game still only ends when Poseidon played all his tiles, so it now lasts twelve or even thirteen rounds, but in the monster rounds Poseidon doesn’t displace any ships. Those guys end up being a huge help.
On Poseidon’s side, there are Maelstroms and Fog Banks to make things easier. A Maelstrom lets Poseidon immediately move any ship that enters is as if he had played a storm tile for that ship. Fog Banks hide things from the Navigator. Anything under a Fog Bank is invisible to ships standing next to it. A ship in a Fog Bank cannot see out, all the Navigators learn is that the ship is inside a Fog Bank.
It’s not the gods that judge, it’s us – Our Impression
From the description, Odyssey sounds like a very dry game. I’m not going to lie, it’s not a game packed with action. But if you enjoy deduction games, then it’s a fun implementation of a competitive, asymmetric one. The split between Navigators on the one side and Poseidon on the other works, both sides have an enjoyable experience. The Navigators have to puzzle out where they are, pretty much a classic deduction game spot. But Poseidon doesn’t have perfect information, either. He doesn’t know where the Navigators think they might be, so he has to avoid inadvertently helping them when moving their ships. And I’ll admit, it is very satisfying to hear the Navigators’ confusion from the other side of the screen.
But there are some downsides to be mentioned. With the default rules, the game seems skewed in Poseidon’s favor. There are six steps between the starting islands and the Sacred Island. Poseidon has two storm tiles for each ship plus three black ones, so he can push each ship back five spaces in total. For the Navigators, that means they have to head straight for the Island every turn in order to make it. If Poseidon confounds them just once, then that ship is in trouble. Make that two ships and Poseidon wins. In fact, the worst thing Poseidon can do is try to be clever and push the ships towards the Island hoping to confuse his opponents. Just keep pushing them back, and then just make one good move where they can’t be sure about their position. The default rules should be to play with one Sea Monster to make things more even.
The second problem is that Poseidon can have an early victory. As soon as two ships are further away from the Sacred Island than they can travel against the wind, the game is over. Unless Poseidon mentions as much or the Navigators realize it, it might still go until the end. Making half the game a foregone conclusion is my big problem with Odyssey. The Navigators needed a chance to catch up. Nothing to overpowered, but something to make the game tense until the end. Give them one chance per game to ask for help from one of the other gods, for instance, that would be enough to keep them in the game. Maybe even better, give them one special ability from a small selection, keep it hidden from Poseidon until they play it. That would not only even the scales, it would also add some uncertainty for Poseidon and address Odyssey‘s final problem: replayability.
Odyssey is a fun game, despite the flaws mentioned above, but only for a couple of games. After those few games, there just isn’t much new to discover. Poseidon has figured out not to be too clever, the players know they must keep going for the center to win. Nothing really surprising happens any more. You will still take it out to play occasionally, but you won’t go “let’s do this again tomorrow!” Odyssey is a solid game, but it doesn’t play in the same league as Colovini’s famous deduction game Incognito. That’s a shame, because there was a lot more potential here.